Nick Clegg vs. England

Her Majesty’s second minister wishes to replace the existing House of Lords with a mostly elected Senate. The Lords, he says, ‘is an affront to the principles of openness which underpin a modern democracy… [it is] perhaps the most potent symbol of a closed society.’ That this is drivel ought to become clear to any averagely educated person in five seconds flat. Another second or two, and the destructive enormity of the drivel sinks in.

Deprive a nation of its most prized possession, something without which it’s unthinkable, and you destroy its soul. Without its music Germany wouldn’t be Germany. France wouldn’t be France without its cathedrals. And England wouldn’t be England without its constitution.

This unique gift England gave mankind has been steadily pushed into a coffin for quite a while. And now Clegg, ably assisted and hardly ever resisted by cross-party ignoramuses, wants to drive the last nail in.

At least I hope, for Clegg’s sake, that it’s ignorance that animates him. Though unpardonable in a cabinet minister, this failing is correctable (if asked, I could recommend a few gap-filling books on our realm). If, however, he’s driven by cheap opportunism, as many suspect, then the case is hopeless. However, I’m willing to give Clegg the benefit of the doubt and point out a few salient points he ignores.

Political philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Machiavelli and Montesquieu (and British thinkers too numerous to mention) were united in their prescription against the deadly malaise of tyranny: checks and balances. The hereditary power of the monarch must be checked by unelected aristocracy – and both balanced by the power of the commons wielded through an elected body. Upset the balance, and tyranny beckons. Too much royal or aristocratic power would mean that the people might not have their interests properly represented. Too much power to the people, and what Tocqueville called ‘the tyranny of the majority’ becomes a serious threat.

What remained a theory to the philosophers was gloriously put into practice in England. The issue of unchecked royal power was settled in 1649, final touches applied in 1688, and England had her balanced constitution, the envy of the world. To be sure, it wasn’t perfect – in this world we aren’t blessed with perfect institutions. But it’s as close as mankind has ever got.

Contrary to what many Americans claim, a written constitution is like a prenuptial agreement stipulating the frequency of sex: if you have to write it down, you might as well not bother. England’s constitution wasn’t written on paper; it was written in the hearts of Englishmen. And that organ isn’t a stone tablet: when appropriate, it allows change. ‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,’ as Burke famously put it. To him, prudence was the key. Having observed how imprudent changes had ripped the soul out of France, Burke devoted his life to preventing a similar disaster in the country he loved.

Our constitution has indeed undergone some changes, few of them for the better. At first the focus of the realm, its monarch, was divested of executive power. Then, step by step, the Lords was debauched by Clegg’s likeminded precursors who were ignorant enough to believe that government is all about a show of hands, or else an exchange of favours among appointees. Gradually, what has emerged is for all intents and purposes the dictatorship of the Commons, barely checked by the Lords. Now Clegg wants to remove even those feeble checks.

His hysterical rants against the unelected chamber show he simply doesn’t understand that this is its whole point. Man being fallible and indeed fallen, those who lovingly nurtured our constitution over centuries understood that elected representatives might sink into demagogic politicking and come under the pressure of party politics. To balance that, the Lords was to be filled with those who owed their position to birth and would therefore be beholden only to their conscience, not to any political entity. However, with the theological basis for this understanding on its way out, spivs in all three parties saw their opening: reduce the Lords to an elected extension of the Commons, and spivocracy is perpetuated.

The so-called Conservatives proceed from the same ‘principles’ as Clegg and only disagree on the timing. And if he, an EU commissioner in the making, probably gets his ideas of a Senate from France, the Tories are more likely to be inspired by the American model. But the USA is a revolutionary country that split away from Britain to pursue its own destiny. One of the first acts of the new republic was to abolish all titles of nobility, thus eliminating estates and consequently any need to balance their interests. The senators and representatives there are drawn from the same pool that also feeds the executive and judiciary branches. This isn’t the place to judge how well the system works in America. Suffice it to say that what is meat to the Americans may be poison to us. Superficial similarities notwithstanding, Americans are fundamentally different from the Brits, and we mustn’t try to import their politics the way we’ve already imported fast food, baseball caps and verbs made out of nouns.

Does Clegg realise that our head of state is also unelected? How long before he proposes we do something about that? What a sight for sore eyes it would be to watch Nick stand against the Queen in an election. The smart money would be on Her Majesty. 


Iran’s nuclear bomb less than a year away

So claimed the US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta in a CBS interview. For once, he was unequivocal about America’s position: ‘The United States does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon… We will take whatever steps necessary to stop it… There are no options off the table.’

Well, there are some options that have fallen off the table, if only by default. Such as diplomatic pressure: the chap whose name sounds like ‘I’m a dinner jacket’ seems to be impervious to it. Or else a quick surgical strike: by now Iran’s nuclear facilities are buried so deep underneath rock and concrete that it’ll take something apocalyptic to get at them from the air. But it does sound as if the USA is committed to do whatever is necessary. Doing nothing is no longer an option.

Much as the invasion of Iraq was foolhardy, the destruction of Iran’s nuclear capacity is a matter of life or death, not only Israel’s but ours as well. For one thing, should a nuclear war break out in the Middle East, its consequences would be unpredictable. A strong line of thought among strategists says that a nuclear exchange anywhere in the world, and certainly close to Europe, could precipitate a doomsday scenario. And then, should the spirit move ‘I’m a dinner jacket’, Iran would be able to deliver a nuclear charge — to any Mediterranean country in a rocket or to any country in the world in a suitcase.

This proves the danger of shilly-shallying, if any further proof is necessary. The Nazi war machine, for example, could have been taken apart on numerous occasions before the whole world caught fire. This could have been done in 1936 after the Germans occupied the Rhineland — a couple of French divisions would have sufficed. Or even in 1939, when Germany was getting bogged down in Poland and didn’t have a single tank on its own western border. The French and the British had more than 1,500 tanks there, and they could have reached Berlin practically without a shot. Instead, the ‘phoney war’ was being waged, with a catastrophe just round the corner.

Had the Americans refrained from their ill-advised ‘nation-building’ in Iraq, they could have nipped Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the bud years ago. Then a few sorties of a US-led Nato airforce could have put paid to the cascade-building effort in Iran, or at least delayed it either indefinitely or at least until ‘I’m a dinner jacket’ shuffled this mortal coil (one hears there’s no dearth of Iranians who’d be happy to hurry him along). Now, having suffered much erosion of public support for any military action, and wasted a trillion dollars, not to mention 4,500 American lives, the US will have to consider starting  yet another major war (possibly with a bit of nation-building thrown in at the end), and one it can’t afford to lose. If that’s what they’ve decided to do, the decision is right. Shame about the delay.

The upshot of it all is, if you’re planning a holiday anywhere in the Middle East next year, I’d put it off. It may get too hot there, in more ways than one.


I agree with Dave on gay marriage

Dave ‘David’ Cameron is absolutely right. There’s nothing wrong with gay marriage. Who wants a dull union of a morose man and a grumpy woman? Marriage, to be successful, should be full of laughter, every day a joyous… Excuse me? This isn’t what he meant? Oh well, never mind, how silly of me.

I only mentioned Cameron’s utterly subversive stand on homosexual marriage because he has seen fit to make pronouncements on the Authorised Version and Christianity, a religion he admits he practises only ‘vaguely’. In case you don’t speak political, allow me to translate: it means not at all. In general, it’s not speeches but policies that offer a reliable clue to a politician’s beliefs or, as in Dave’s case, the absence thereof.

But one can sympathise with his predicament. The few but bolshie real Tories remaining in his party, and some even on his front bench, would dearly love to see his head on a platter (figuratively, for the time being). Those dinosaurs need to be mollified, but not at the risk of offending our partners, in the coalition (who are known for their hypersensitivity) or in Europe (Sarko doesn’t count) or, for that matter, any group of voters. Sitting on the fence isn’t an option: do it for too long and, apart from courting a possible rectal problem, you’ll have people saying you stand for nothing. No, it’s better to come out fighting, with either foot firmly planted on opposite sides.

Toss a bone to the bolshie Tories by saying marriage is the core unit of society, then another bone, with a bit more meat on it, to those like Dave’s estranged brother Nick, who’d like to see the concept of marriage broadened beyond any old Mum-and-Dad. Abortion? It’s best to stay off the subject altogether, except hinting obliquely that a woman has a right to choose in all sorts of areas, preferably unspecified. Then on to the Archdruid of Canterbury, to tell him to get his finger out of his cassock and appoint female bishops ASAP, thereby going Jesus one better.

And then deliver the big speech on Christian values. Again, one has to charter a safe course through a veritable mine field. You put your right foot in by saying a few things with which anyone would agree regardless of his religion, things like ‘responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love…’, but then you put your left foot out by hinting that you regard Christianity as but one of the world’s ‘four biggest religions’. Equality, right? ‘I am not in any way saying that to have another faith — or no faith — is somehow wrong.’ Yes, that’ll do. But in case the point didn’t come across, those ‘different faith communities… do so much to make our country stronger’. Especially if they vote the right way and refrain from blowing up public transportation, but Dave wouldn’t put things so crudely.

The mine field safely negotiated, let’s emphasise the main point about religion: it should be ‘at the heart of modern social action’. Let those who know something about Christianity, especially those who practise it more than ‘vaguely’, scream ignorant twaddle all they wish. Let them quote the one about Caesar and God till they’re blue in the face. Let them point out that ‘modern social action’ has been systematically destroying Christianity and, specifically, driving the King James Bible out of all but a handful of churches. There aren’t enough of them to make a dent at voting time. They’re just fanatics who aren’t with it. Being with it, unless you’re Richard Dawkins, means acknowledging grudgingly that Christianity has some social value, even if it’s an obsolete superstition. Now put on a finishing touch about ’emancipation of women’ (Get it, Archbishop? Emancipation all the way to bishops’ palaces, is the point), and Nick’s your brother, Rowan’s your friend.

Aren’t our politicians clever? Would you be able to put together a speech with so many intersecting messages, explicit and implicit? I know I wouldn’t.



Václav Havel, a man of his time

History knows few politicians who shaped their time. But they did exist, good men like, at random, Pericles, Alexander II or Colbert — and also rotten ones like Napoleon, Lenin or Hitler. But most of those who achieved great fame had greatness thrust upon them, and they grabbed their chance with both hands. Václav Havel was one such man.

At best a half-decent playwright, he became a dissident during and after the 1968 Prague Spring. Dissident movements in all communist countries represented a patchwork quilt of political views, but the critical watershed ran between two groups of dissent: one allowed by the authorities, the other proscribed. The difference wasn’t hard to tell: the former were occasionally slapped on the wrist for the sake of verisimilitude; the latter, killed. Like a gardener, who clips tree branches to make sure they grow in a certain direction, the Soviets and their Eastern European stooges would carefully cultivate the kind of dissent that was consonant with their policy, while mercilessly uprooting the kind that wasn’t. (Incidentally, this watershed has entirely escaped the attention of Western analysts. They aren’t to blame: those who never experienced first-hand the deviousness of communist regimes find it hard to understand them fully or to draw fine distinctions in places where they are critical.)

And they needed a simulacrum of dissent to soften their image in the West, which occasionally took exception to unmitigated brutality and refused to feed the communists, something they were never able to do for themselves. To illustrate the difference between the two types of dissent, compare two uprisings against communist rule: the Hungarian and the Czech. The former was a genuine, which is to say disallowed, popular revolt against communism. Egged on by the CIA and later, in the good tradition of that organisation, betrayed by it, young Hungarians, armed only with old rifles and Molotov cocktails, threw themselves at Soviet tanks, fought to the last bullet and perished to the last man. All their leaders were butchered, many were hanged publicly and left dangling off lampposts. Their dissent hadn’t been allowed.

Nothing of the sort happened in Prague Spring, initiated by those mythical ‘communists with a human face’. It was clear that at the time the Soviets wanted to portray themselves as erstwhile tyrants who were softening enough to merit Nixon’s detente. As tyrants, they did move the tanks in. As partners in detente, they fired no rounds. And the leaders of the uprising lost their jobs but not their lives. Their dissent had been allowed.

The same applied to the Solidarity movement in Poland. After Lech Walesa became the leader of the post-communist state, a book was published, claiming that the sainted Pole, under the codename of Bolek, had been run by the Security Service, a claim supported with confidence by the late president Lech Kaczynski. Shrieks of disbelief were heard all over the West, but I didn’t add my own. Because Walesa’s dissent was allowed, he wasn’t exactly a free agent one way or the other. Whether he did the Security’s bidding wittingly or unwittingly is something for his priest to tackle. From the standpoint of history or political commentary it doesn’t really matter.

Similar revelations have come out in Russia, where many celebrated dissidents, some of whom I knew in my youth, have since been found to have been KGB agents, of influence or otherwise. Their spirits had been broken, and they had done the devil’s work knowing that’s what it was. Many more, like Sakharov, were genuinely good men who, unbeknown to them, were cynically exploited to act as messengers of disinformation, a word the Soviets contributed to most languages.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, so largely did its empire. Shockingly, the events were, and still are, accepted at face value in the West, where the genie of triumphalism burst out of its bottle. But the USSR didn’t bite the dust because of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa — or Václav Havel. It did so because of conscious decisions its leaders had made. Whether the whole process was controlled throughout, and its results were those desired, or the phoney liberalisation got out of hand and the toothpaste could no longer be squeezed back into its tube, we don’t know. But if the end of the process is debatable, the beginning of it is in no doubt whatsoever: the Soviets wanted to loosen the reins the better to advance their objectives.

Subsequent events bear out this unfashionable view. Just as Russia is being run by a KGB elite, fronted by Col. Putin (‘there’s no such thing as ex-KGB,’ he once claimed proudly, ‘this is for life.’), so do most fragments of the Soviet empire have governments made up of communists and ex-security officers, many implicated in things worse than mild misdemeanours.

Václav Havel was a man of the left, an oxymoronic social democrat. As most artists, he wasn’t really fit for statesmanship — energising the masses with bien-pensant rhetoric came more naturally — but accepted the role thrust upon him with alacrity. Partly no doubt it was powerlust, but the desire to do good was also there. A kind man, Havel had much empathy for the human condition, but he never knew how to channel that commendable quality into the conduit of statesmanship. Thus, immediately upon rising to the presidency, he initiated a rather indiscriminate amnesty, letting out not only political prisoners but also thugs who instantly turned Prague into a dangerous place. Nor did he do anything to uproot communists out of positions of power — that required a courage of a different grade from that of a dissident. And nor did he have the strength to prevent the breakup of Czechoslovakia or at least to call a referendum on that momentous constitutional change. He also fought tooth and nail his Prime Minister, now President, Václav Klaus, a Thatcherite conservative and eurosceptic. In those arguments Klaus was usually right, which didn’t prevent him from dragging the Czechs into the EU. He too has been shaped by his time.

Though an international star, Václav Havel wasn’t universally loved in his own country (nor is Gorbachev in his). But death changes perspectives, and no doubt many of those who didn’t care much for him when he lived mourn Havel now he is dead. ‘Truth will prevail,’ he often said. I’m not sure it has, in his native land. But at least Václav Havel wanted truth to prevail, and for this he’ll be remembered. RIP.








Christopher Hitchens, RIP

De mortuis nil nisi bonum, goes the old adage. Loosely translated, this means, ‘If you can’t say anything nice about a dead man, shut up.’ Not being a Spartan, I’d say that ought to depend on the man.

Would a Russian not have been allowed to say nasty things about Stalin in 1953? Or an Auschwitz survivor about Hitler in 1945? Or the grieving English parents about Fred West in 1995? Of course they would. They could even have been forgiven a wild celebration.

Well, you might say, there are no rules without exceptions. Nil nisi bonum doesn’t cover those who destroy lives. Agreed. Do let’s exempt such destructive personages from this otherwise universal injunction. All we have to do now is explain what we mean by destroying lives. Surely it can’t be just murder?

Ideas, and words that convey them, can cause more damage than guns and bombs. After all, it’s words that can cause guns to be fired, not guns than can cause words to be uttered. As the history of the fateful 20th century shows, the pen isn’t just mightier than the sword. It’s also more murderous.

Without the hateful drivel churned out by Marx and the pre-revolutionary harangues by Lenin, those 60 million Russians murdered by the Bolsheviks might have lived to old age. Without Hitler spewing out venom largely extracted from the writings of German Romanticists, all those millions wouldn’t have suffered horrific deaths.

Yes, the physical murders were still inflicted by physical means: bullet, bomb, gas, cold steel, inhuman torture. But as ever the physical was secondary; the metaphysical – thoughts, words, pamphlets – primary.

Ferocious attacks on Christianity take pride of place among metaphysical crimes against humanity. For a blow aimed at the founding tenets of our civilisation strikes at the civilisation itself.

Whether God punishes such attacks by death is known to Him only. But anyone who has ever stooped to arguing with strident atheists, or indeed reading their books, can testify to the punishment exacted immediately and universally: idiocy. And it doesn’t matter whether the culprit was stupid to begin with or, as some are, brilliant.

The cleverest man in the world is reduced to a blithering idiot the moment he launches his attacks. If previously rigorous and logical in his rhetoric, he starts mouthing arguments that wouldn’t survive 10 seconds of intelligent inquiry. If previously eloquent and precise in his speech, he begins to use words that have no meaning. If normally brilliant, he becomes dim. The only way for an intelligent atheist to retain his intellectual integrity is to steer clear of the subject, as many of my friends do.

By way of proof just look at the subtitle of a book written by a man widely celebrated for his intelligence and wit: How Religion Poisons Everything. Which religion are we talking about here? There is no such thing as religion in general, only concrete religions, each with its own dogma, history, theology, liturgical practices and ultimately way of life. Using the word in the abstract betokens ignorance and mental laziness.

And ‘everything’? Would that by any chance include Christian charities, alms houses, schools, hospital, hospices – the care for the sick, the old and the orphans, praised even by that great foe of Christianity, Julian the Apostate?

Yes, the atheist would argue, but look at the crimes committed in the name of Christianity. True, there were many. Nothing to compare with the best part of half a billion people killed in the first godless century, the 20th, but still. People have been killed in the name of Christ.

They’ve also been killed in the name of Mohammed, Napoleon, Cyrus, Louis (add your own numeral), George (ditto) – in fact in the name of enough people and causes for us to realise that perhaps it’s not about the cause. It’s about man’s nature.

People kill, and no religion, including Christianity, can prevent that. Christ wasn’t out to change man’s nature. His aim was to show how man can do this for himself. Perdition is often collective, but salvation is always individual, and God didn’t deprive individuals of freedom, including the freedom to make wrong choices. He showed the path, but it’s up to us to take it or not. But our strident atheist can’t grasp the kind of subtleties that wouldn’t be beyond him on any other subject.

And yet, I’ve been unable to mention Hitchens by name throughout this article. I can’t claim that I’ve suddenly acquired respect for him or his thoughts. I haven’t.

But I do respect death, and the scathing remarks that would have rolled off my pen two days ago are refusing to come out. Instead, I’d like to offer my sympathy to the family of the deceased. And I hope that those of you who know how will join me in praying for Christopher Hitchens’s soul. May God, whom he hated, have mercy on him.

The thirsty God of the NHS

Increases in the NHS budgets over the last 10 years equal a third of out national debt. Not the whole budget. Just the increases. Now, it has been known for centuries that even sacred cows can’t be milked indefinitely. Yet the NHS flies in the face of this  time-proven wisdom.

This Leviathan has used every trick to create a saintly aura around itself. Many brainwashed Englishmen honestly believe that using private medicine, even if it means salvation from misery or death, is tantamount to moral turpitude and treason. If medical care weren’t free, they claim, poor people would be dying in the street like stray dogs.

But the term ‘free medical care’ is mendacious. Nothing is free. If patients don’t pay for medicine direct, the payment comes from the government, which can make money only from taxes or ‘quantitative easing’ (‘queasing’ for short). Thus ‘free medicine’ really means that the transfer of money from patient to hospital is mediated by the state. It also means that an ever-growing proportion of our money goes to support the state bureaucracy administering ‘free’ medical care, something for which we’d pay less if medical care weren’t ‘free’.

Steady growth of nationalised medicine is tantamount to the state extorting ever-larger taxes from the people. In the process, ‘free’ medical care places an increasing proportion of the nation’s finances and labour force under state control, thus increasing the power of the state over the individual. The NHS is already by far the biggest single employer in Britain (and Europe), and it’ll soon become the only one, if the current crisis proceeds apace.

That medical care can be used as an instrument of tyranny has been demonstrated by every unsavoury state of modernity, not least Nazi Germany. Firm believers in state medicine, the Nazis showed how it could be used for crowd control. Like our bureaucrats today, they emphasised prevention, with proper nutrition featuring prominently in their propaganda. Every Nazi German had a duty to look after himself in order to prolong the state-serving part of his life.

Likewise, in today’s state medicine the need to relieve pressures on the public purse can be neatly converted into nannying. Conditioned to accept the dictates of the state, we don’t cringe upon hearing from yet another health official yet another admonishment of our diets. ‘And exactly what makes this your business, Minister?’ is a question seldom asked. But if it were asked, the truthful answer wouldn’t be far removed from the Nazi rationale: the good of nationalised medicine and therefore the state.

The Nazis waged an anti-smoking campaign that would be the envy of today’s Britain. It was they who first established the link between smoking and lung cancer, and as a result lung-cancer statistics in Germany continued to be better than in other Western countries for a couple of post-war decades. Chemical additives and preservatives were demonised by the Nazis, wholemeal bread was depicted as morally superior to breads made from blanched white flour. Like today’s bureaucrats, the Nazis promoted vegetarianism (practised by Hitler, Hess and many others) and attacked medical experiments on animals.

Of course, Nazi doctors were involved not just in preventive medicine but, most of them eagerly, in such less benign pastimes as eugenics and enforced euthanasia. It’s comforting to see how our medicine is inching in the same direction. Euthanasia, in particular, is custom-made for the modern world, what with its adulation of the state. One can’t open the papers these days without reading a thinly veiled lament about the burden placed on the fragile shoulders of state medicine by an aging population. And euthanasia is steadily moving towards the forefront of potential remedies.

At present Swiss clinics offer ‘mercy killing’ as an expensive optional service, but the time can’t be far away when our government will make it compulsory. This is a paradox, for the government’s tireless propaganda of healthier ‘life styles’, coupled with advances in pharmaceuticals, is designed to help people live longer. This creates yet another vicious circle of modernity: the state uses medicine to increase its own power; but as a corollary to this, it hurts itself by creating a multitude of wrinkly freeloaders who do nothing but sap the state’s resources.

The British, who are unhappy about the potentially deadly waiting lists at hospitals caused by a chronic shortage of beds, miss the point. State medicine doesn’t need hospital beds to achieve its principal objective: power over people’s lives. To make this point, NHS hospitals shed frontline medical jobs while swelling their staffs with administrative personnel bearing New Age titles like Director of Diversity, Facilitator of Optimisation and Optimiser of Facilitation.

The numbers are telling: St George’s Hospital in Tooting has sacked 500 doctors and nurses, London’s venerable St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas’s 630 between them – with a corresponding reduction in hospital beds. And a Birmingham hospital recently created a new post of Director of Diversity at a cost of £100,000 a year, while at the same time cutting the number of already scarce beds for lack of funds.

All this fun proceed to the accompaniment of PR bleating that, before the NHS came down from heaven in 1948, ill people had been treated inadequately, if at all. In fact, fewer hospitals were built in Britain during the first half-century of our nationalised medicine than in the 1930s, hardly the most prosperous decade in British history.

Unfortunately, even expert critics of the NHS refuse to acknowledge that it’s so inadequate not because it’s run in a flawed way but because it’s based on a flawed idea: social egalitarianism. Never mind the quality, feel the equality. As a result, Britain remains a first-world country with third-world medicine. But at least those pensioners, dying of MRSA or being starved to death in NHS hospitals can go to their maker in the serene knowledge that our medical care remains ‘free.




Nick Clegg’s Russian pride

Does Nick Clegg love the EU so much because he carries it within himself? The English, German and Dutch rivers intermingle with the as yet non-EU Russian brook in his bloodstream. Add to this his Spanish wife, and verily I say unto you: the mix is explosive.

Now far be it from me to suggest that one’s personality, or much less behaviour, is solely, or indeed mainly, attributable to one’s ethnicity. This isn’t a bed we made for ourselves, even though we have to lie in it. Genes, ethnic or otherwise, may give a bias to one’s life, but they don’t determine it. We make our own free choices throughout, some good, some bad. It’s perfectly acceptable to be proud of the former and ashamed of the latter. It’s wrong to attribute either to our ancestry.

Logically then, one’s ethnicity by itself is nothing to be either proud or ashamed of. We are what we are. However, one can legitimately be either proud or ashamed of a specific ancestor. A German descending from Heinrich Heine can be forgiven a spot of familial pride. The same emotion in a descendant of Heinrich Himmler is cause for summoning the men in white coats. Stands to reason, doesn’t it?

Nick Clegg, however, defies reason by claiming that he is proud of the Russian part of him. If he means this in general, it doesn’t make much sense, and Nick isn’t a stupid man (he’s many other things, but we won’t talk about it now). So he has to imply a particular affection for his great-great aunt, who put those Russian drops into the family barrel. Well, let me tell you, there’s nothing to be proud of.

When those muscular, leather-jerkined Bolsheviks took over in 1917, they immediately began to murder, torture and rob millions, often for no reason other than wrong class origins. That, no doubt, was most satisfying, but the trouble was that the West had some misgivings about that sort of thing. And Lenin’s gang couldn’t have survived without the West’s support. This meant they had to offset the bad press they were receiving, by countering it with some good press. That could only come from those Western cultural and political figures whose sympathy the murderers could court. Some of those, such as the American communists John Reed and Louise Bryant, didn’t need to be asked. Many others required inducements. These were provided by the Soviet secret police, known at the time first as VCheKa and then as OGPU, an organisation that could be commended for its deviousness, but never accused of subtlety. The very unsubtle ‘honey trap’ figured prominently in their bag of tricks.

But, even if westerners could be initially trapped by the ‘kitchen maids’ who, according to Lenin, would one day form the government, they would soon spring the trap out of sheer boredom. No, to taste really sweet the honey had to be provided by the fragrant, multilingual, cultured ladies from the same classes the OGPU was busily exterminating. There was no shortage of them, young girls prepared to prostitute themselves to redeem their unfortunate nativity. A spate of famous Westerners went on to acquire OGPU wives or mistresses (list available on request). One of the busiest WAGs was Clegg’s great-great aunt, Moura Budberg, née Zakrevskaya. A life-long Bolshevik agent, she was particularly good at her job, first bagging R.H. Bruce Lockhart, the British envoy who played an ambivalent role in the post-revolutionary events. Then on to Maxim Gorky, who was at the time feeling queasy at the sight of freely flowing blood. Then, or rather in parallel, on to H.G. Wells, who described Lenin as ‘the dreamer in the Kremlin’ at the time the dreamer was outdoing  the later nightmarish exploits of Hitler. In due course Moura moved to England, and was free to travel back and forth to Russia any time she wished — the NKVD, as it had become, was sure of her loyalty and grateful for her service. It was in England that Moura gave her descendant Nick something to be proud of by marrying Baron Budberg.

As I said, I don’t believe that Clegg’s double-dealing, self-serving behaviour over the last few weeks is in any way attributable to Moura’s genes. But perhaps one could suggest that, even if he has little else to be proud of, this particular pride is misplaced.


Mikhail Prokhorov, the lightning rod

Prokhorov, the world’s 32nd richest man, has announced he’ll contest the Russian presidential elections against ‘alpha dog’ Putin in March. That’s the text of the message. But, as things so often are in Russia, it’s merely the camouflage for the really meaningful subtext.

But before we try to decypher it, a personal note: Misha (the diminutive version of his Christian name) and I have much in common: we were both born in Russia, we both spend much time in France and… well, that’s about it. From then on, it’s nothing but differences: he’s 6’8”, I’m not; he still lives in Russia, I don’t; he’s rich, I’m not; he was charged by Courchevel police with running a prostitution ring in 2007, I wasn’t. (The French later dismissed the charges when it turned out the imported Russian ladies were strictly for the private use of Misha and his retinue. Though at the time Misha swore he’d never darken France’s doorstep again, he has since softened his stance. And the next year his acolytes gave Misha a splendid birthday present: they bought the disco in Courchevel’s centre and closed it down, thus depriving the town of the focal point to its nightlife. The French call this sort of thing revanchism.)

And now the difference that really matters: I tend to make serious decisions on my own; Misha doesn’t, and this probably goes for what he calls ‘the most serious decison’ of his life: to stand for President. In his seriousness stakes, this must then rank higher than the decision Misha took last June, when he got out of his Norilsk Nickel (the world’s largest producer of that metal) and entered politics to form the Right Cause party. As is widely believed in Russia, that decision was made for him by Medvedev, the alpha dog’s poodle. Now why would Russia’s pseudo-president encourage a rival party to appear?

No Russian would ask that question, but a Westerner might. We are used to politics that, the odd bit of corruption, mendacity and double-dealing notwithstanding, are generally above board. The Russians, on the other hand, aren’t even aware that the board exists. They know, for example, that oligarchs like Misha aren’t businessmen in our sense of the word. They were, in the Russian phrase, ‘appointed oligarchs’ when the ruling KGB camarilla decided to go semi-legit internationally. Misha, for example, came out of nowhere in 1993 to become a billionaire overnight by purchasing Norilsk Nickel, whose market value was stratospheric. How did he get the money? Saved it up by taking bag lunches?

Most Westerners don’t ask this question because it doesn’t occur to them. Most Russians don’t ask it because they know the answer: Misha’s ‘business’ partner in the transaction was Vladimir Potanin, then Deputy Prime Minister in charge of privatisation. This sort of partnership might be called conflict of interest elsewhere, but not in Russia. There it was merely yet another would-be oligarch rewarded for his loyalty to the camarilla and entrusted with handling much of its capital. As Khodorkovsky’s case shows, such continuing loyalty is the precondition not only for getting the appointment, but also for staying in the job (or at large). No oligarch can remain at that perch if he shows the slightest disloyalty to the KGB, FSB, SVR, PDQ, SOB or whatever set of initials is really running Russia.

For months before the Duma elections a week ago, the camarilla had been aware that real opposition to Putin, their front man, was brewing. They responded in exactly the same way as the KGB used to handle dissent when it no longer suited their purposes to murder millions. Around the time of the Nixon détente in the late sixties, they created a bogus dissident movement they could control, thus infiltrating and emasculating the real dissent that was gathering strength. Using the same stratagem, Medvedev (well, Putin really) egged Misha on to enter the political arena last summer, to see if he could function as a lightning rod for the camarilla. After a short trial run, the Right Cause party folded: it had passed the test, and there was no need for it to enter Duma politics in earnest. But Misha was kept on tap for bigger, if not necessarily better, things.

Now the bigger things have arrived, and Misha has manfully assumed the function of a lightning rod, making sure that any real oppostion to the alpha dog would be run into the ground. This is of course conjecture, but, when glasnost is merely a figure of speech, an educated guess is often more reliable than straight reportage. My guess is that the deal struck somewhere in the Kremlin is that, should the ploy work, and Putin is ensconced for the next 12 years, Misha would get a top job, possibly Medvedev’s. Or else he may be allowed to function in the capacity of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, ‘loyal’ being the operative world. A remote possibility also exists that the camarilla has decided to appoint Misha president, just as it once appointed him oligarch. If that happens, the West will be talking about the wind of change or whatever cliché will rule the day. The Russians won’t. They’ll know that ‘the wind returneth again according to its circuits.’ Or, as they say in Courchevel, plus ça change.



LibDems and other fascists

Of course I’m talking about the Russian neofascist Liberal Democrats led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. What did you think?

Mr Zhirinovsky’s party stands for ‘washing Russian soldiers’ boots’ in the Indian Ocean, and he once made a racially abusive remark about Condoleezza Rice. He then compounded the insult by implying she should come to Russia to be sexually assaulted by Russian soldiers. Miss Rice’s response hasn’t been recorded, but it’s a fair assumption that she turned the invitation down.

The only reason I mention the party led by ‘Mad Vlad’ is that it did rather well in the Russian Duma race. Not as well as Zyuganov’s communists, who placed, but it did show. If the election were ever unrigged, as various oppositions demand, then these parties would probably get another 10% of the popular vote. Not enough to win the election, but enough to send a message to progress merchants who assume that, in a tyranny, any change is always for the better. That assumption is being proved wrong in the Middle East, and you can bet your bottom ruble it’ll come a-cropper in Russia. Provided, of course, that the ‘alpha dog’ Putin allows it to be tested.

Meanwhile, the protest rally in Moscow’s Swamp (Bolotnaya) Square on 10 December brought in a crowd whose size is estimated at somewhere between 25 and 150 thousand. In any case, in the apt remark of the Russian columnist Yulia Latynina, ‘it was a hell of a lot’ (my translation softens the line a bit). The alpha dog’s first reaction to the unfolding protests was as traditionally Russian as vodka: he blamed Hilary Clinton, to whom he owes his robust soubriquet. That didn’t work, but it was worth a try: Blaming outlanders does tend to strike a chord with the mysterious Russian soul. Thus it was the Germans surrounding the tsars who ruined Russia, the Jews surrounding Lenin and Stalin who massacred 60 million — name your own villains, as long as they aren’t simon-pure Russian. It’s not as if in this case Col. Putin thought the cheated electorate would think that Mrs Clinton had personally polled ‘a hell of a lot’ of people, ordering them to come to Swamp Square. No, it’s just that the dastardly Hilary and her ilk had egged the Russians on with their subversive sermons on democracy and free markets. Yes, this was definitely worth a try, but it didn’t take the alpha dog long to realise he was barking up the wrong tree.

For his next trick, the good colonel explained that the unfolding events have nothing to do with him personally. Contextually he acknowledged that some ‘irregularities’ might have contributed to his United Russia’s landslide. It was the personal pronoun that he repudiated. United Russia, howled the alpha dog, is in no way ‘his’. He, Col. Putin, isn’t a Duma member and therefore neither belongs to the ‘party of thieves and crooks’ (as it has become affectionately nicknamed) nor consequently leads it. That’s a bit like saying that, once Lenin became head of the Soviet government, he severed his links with the communist party he had founded. Now, if the first reaction was ever so slightly knee-jerk, the second one hints at the strategy the alpha dog is going to pursue in the March presidential elections.

Again he’s reading the Russian soul, or at least history, well. The Russians traditionally blame their ever-present misfortunes not on the ‘good tsar’ but on the ‘bad ministers’. The tsar (Secretary General, President) hides behind a metaphysical halo. He’s both the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the merciful God of the Gospels. The moment he descends from the cloud and begins to look, a bit, like a corporeal man, they’ll pounce and blow him apart (Alexander II) or riddle him with bullets (Nicholas II). But as long as he stays up there, he’s safe. It’s his ministers (party, immediate circle, police) who take the blame.

Putin clearly wishes to distance himself from United Russia, whose ratings are much lower than his own. It’s entirely possible that to that end he’ll break his pact with Medvedev (bear, in Russian) and toss him to the hound dogs. To mix in yet another zoological metaphor, sometimes it takes a scapegoat to protect a sacred cow. But one way or the other he clearly expects to win in March on the platform of his personal one-dog crusade to clear up the mess left by the ‘thieves and crooks’. One suspects this was Putin’s strategy from the start, which is why the two elections were cleverly scheduled on either side of the New Year’s break, which in Russia tends to be very long and, how shall I put this politely, rather exuberant.

It appears that, for the time being, Putin has decided to refrain from the use of force. Bump off the odd journalist in a dark Moscow alley (over 40 of them on his watch), rough up a dozen activists, or even radiate an opponent in London, and the bad publicity will soon fade away. But open up on a crowd of ‘a hell of a lot’ of protesters, and before long people will start talking serious atrocities. Not that Putin would have any moral qualms about a spot of target shooting — no, as all those photos of his muscular torso show, he’s a man’s man, nastoyaschiy muzhik in Russian. And the Russians don’t want their leaders to be wimps (Dave Cameron, ring your office). They like their muzhiks. The problem is that the whole project of glasnost and perestroika was designed as principally a PR exercise for Western consumption. And Stalin-like violence would get stuck in the West’s craw, spelling the end of the project. Can’t have that, can we?

For fear of emulating Cassandra’s fate I usually steer clear of her exploits. But I’m willing to make an exception in this case: the alpha dog will do fine. He has already laid the groundwork for electoral victories in perpetuity: no viable political opposition exists. The Western-style liberals are craven, weak and inept — as demonstrated by their willingness to form staunchly principled alliances with assorted fascists. In March, given the choice between the alpha dog and Zyuganov’s guard dogs or Zhirinovsky’s rottweilers, the Russians will shrug their shoulders: a distinction without a difference. Then they’ll wince and vote for the devil they know, rather than one they don’t know or one they wish to forget. And if they don’t, we have another rigged election to look forward to.

Decision not made, but delayed

Most papers are full of back-slapping panegyrics for Dave ‘David’ Cameron. I wasn’t around when Wellington came back from that field in Belgium, but I doubt the accolades he received were of greater intensity. Nor, I don’t think, did the then mayor of London congratulate the Iron Duke on having ‘played a blinder’. Wellington, as school children used to be taught, won the battle of Waterloo. Which battle did Dave win?

The taxes and regulations that were aimed at the heart of the City haven’t been retargetted. The treasonous Maastricht treaty still bears a British signature. The European Human Rights court still has jurisdiction here, and innumerable EU regulations are still in force. Dave, say the pundits, has distanced Britain from the rest of the EU. He did, in the sense in which a dog on a long lead is farther away from its owner than one on a short lead. But the dog can’t run away.

At the same time, the sideline and isolation merchants are screaming themselves hoarse. Because of Dave’s putative heroism, they emote, Britain won’t be able to affect decisions made by the EU. That’s tragic. Hold on a second, let me wipe my eyes. I’m bleeding inside and all that, but is one allowed to suggest that the EU won’t be the only place to hold us in such contempt? At the time of this writing, Britain can neither veto nor vet the decisions made by the US Congress. The Chinese also stubbornly keep us out of the loop. And even the ungrateful Commonwealth countries insist on thinking for themselves, as a result of which bloody-mindedness Australia, say, managed to escape the worst ravages of the debt crisis. And it’s not as if decisions made by other governments didn’t affect us. They do, as they are bound to in a globalised economy. And yet do they ever ask us? Do they, hell.

The difference, you’ll say, is that Britain isn’t yet the fifty-first state of America, but she is a member of the EU. This is true. It’s precisely the problem. And this problem Dave didn’t solve. In fact he only did two things of any importance: 1) he made a grand-stand symbolic gesture that for the time being seems to have sufficed to mollify his party and hold the coalition together, and 2) he drove Sarkozy satisfyingly close to apoplexy, thereby pleasing no end those of us who are blessed with a keen aesthetic sense.

Dave ‘David’ has climbed onto a high moral ground, but, not to come tumbling down from it, he must take the country out of the EU altogether. Then we’d be able to treat the EUSSR in exactly the same way as we treat the USA, China or Brazil. Actually perhaps better than that, for, superficial similarities notwithstanding, I’m convinced that culturally Britain has more in common with France than with the USA, to say nothing of China or Brazil. Friendly aloofness would work wonders: if they wanted to trade with us, we’d be all too happy to oblige. If they attacked our finance industry with protectionist laws, we could respond in kind by introducing retaliatory protectionist measures that would hurt them more than they could hurt us. If they wished to take issue with our foreign policy, or we with theirs, then NATO institutions would provide an ideal arena to settle differences and coordinate policy. And we could even give Sarkozy a free copy of Debrett’s Etiquette for Young Ladies, to help him learn good manners and stop behaving like a hyperactive child with learning difficulties. But we must get out first.

When the trimphant Dave has finished doing his laps in the chariot, showered with laurel wreaths and flowers, perhaps he could get around to the actual business of a good British government. Running sensible budgets. Rebuilding our manufacturing capacity. Rolling back the welfare state. Creating a favourable investment climate for our friends around the world. Protecting the realm. Returning to education that educates. Doing whatever a government can do to invigorate the church (which isn’t much, but every little bit helps). Formulating a foreign policy based on our national interests, rather than those of a foreign power. That’s the kind of blinder he ought to be playing. PR flackery can wait.